Sports

Castilleja grad gets a chance to help in NCAA tennis

 

Paulette Wolak wanted a chance. Stanford women's tennis coach Lele Forood wanted a couple of players. They both got their wish.

Wolak, a Castilleja grad, had been accepted at Stanford long before she thought of playing NCAA tennis. Forood needed to recruit a couple of walk-ons, as her roster was dangerously thin this season.

Wolak not only finds herself on the roster, she's become a regular in doubles competition. Teamed with Krista Hardebeck, the duo is 3-0 in dual meets, with several other matches abandoned when the doubles point was clinched.

Wolak has played in two NCAA matches already, with the 14th-seeded Cardinal (17-5) winning both at the Taube Family Tennis Center last weekend 4-0 against Stony Brook and 4-1 against Pepperdine to qualify for the Round of 16 at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Wolak once again will take her place in the doubles lineup Friday morning when Stanford meets third-seeded California (22-3), the Pac-12 Conference champion.

The Bears also hosted the first two rounds, blanking both Bryant and Mississippi State, 4-0, to reach Waco. They're playing in their ninth straight Round of 16.

Stanford qualified for its 30 consecutive Round of 16 and is hoping to reach its 21st championship match.

Wolak became the third member of her immediate family to play college tennis. Her father, Frank, played at Rice and her mother, Michele, played at Pomona.

"When I came to Stanford I did not expect to play tennis," Wolak said. "I heard there were only six players on the team and I heard from someone else they might be looking for varsity players."

Wolak, named the West Bay Athletic League MVP in 2012, sought out Forood at the beginning of the school year.

"I asked her for a shot and she said 'sure.' " Wolak said. "It sort of just happened."

Nothing was guaranteed. Wolak had to prove she could play Division I tennis and set about doing just that, spending up to five extra hours a week hitting against a machine.

"When you are given an opportunity you don't expect, you try to improve as much as possible," she said.

Three other walk-ons Nora Tan, Montana Morgan and Isabel Prado have made an appearance for the Cardinal this year. Tan and Wolak have each played singles in a dual meet, while all four have played in tournaments.

When Forood brought them aboard in the fall, she was hoping for at least one of them to improve enough to help Stanford, which is bringing a top class of three recruits next year while losing one senior in Ellen Tsay.

Wolak impressed Forood with her work ethic and steady improvement. Wolak said she worked to become "very consistent."

The Cardinal has stayed relatively healthy this year, but Wolak was needed when Lindsey Kostas wasn't quite sure she could play a doubles match against Colorado.

"We were both warming up and I expected Lindsey to play, Wolak said. "But she wasn't going to play at all. Just before doubles started, they said, 'just kidding, Lindsey is not playing. You are.' "

Wolak didn't have time to get nervous. She played well, though the match was not completed. Hardebeck, though, has become of Wolak's closest friends.

Wolak sustained a slight injury in the line of duty. Against Stony Brook, she was running for a drop shot and fell into the net. After a few moments, she was able to continue, and she played against Pepperdine the following day.

The ice on her left knee was a badge of honor for being aggressive.

Hardebeck, who plays No. 4 singles, was the first off the court in each of the first two NCAA matches. Tsay, at No. 5 singles, followed close behind. Hardebeck has won eight of her past 10 matches, while Tsay is 9-1 over the same span.

"It is the time of year to have people firing," Forood said. "They can go out, set the tone and win games early."

Stanford lost its previous two meeting with the Bears this year, 4-3 and 5-2, though both lineups had players missing each time.

"I think we need to try and take care of each point individually," Wolak said of meeting Cal again. "It's going to be a lot different place with a lot to handle. But we've already gone to so many places. There's a lot more energy and a feeling that this is something big. I'm really excited and looking for a good match."

Stanford's No. 1 singles player Carol Zhao (29-4 on the year, 20-2 in dual meets) has been solid all year and enters Friday's contest on a nine-match winning streak.

Zhao played Ana Ivanovic, a former world No. 1 player in the WTA, in last year's Bank of the West Classic at Stanford. She will be unfazed by her opponents.

Taylor Davidson (27-8, 14-3 duals at No. 2) and Caroline Doyle (27-5, 17-2 combined at No. 2 and No. 3) help solidify the top of the singles ladder.

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